Non-resident visitors of the Santa Fé district in Mexico City are often surprised when strolling through the area. While large parts of Santa Fé seem to be copied and pasted from downtown Los Angeles, one suddenly stands in front of a graffiti-covered, grey barrier: a wall, almost four metres tall, made of solid concrete and decorated with a crown of double-strand barbed wire. On the other side of the wall, tiny achromatic houses surrounded by twines of loose electric cables and an open sewage system, dominate the picture. The difference between the two sides could not be more striking. At first glance, this could appear as an isolated case of a failed urban settlement policy. Yet, this imposing barrier is only one of numerous examples of Latin America’s increasing penchant for walls as a means to divide the rich from the poor.

It is certainly not unusual that walls mark out cleavages and borders. Historically, walls have often been used to outline physical spaces, control territories or exclude from resources and land – be it Israel’s ‘security wall’, Eastern Germany’s ‘anti-fascist barrier’ or Belfast’s ‘peace walls’. However, the construction of walls in Latin America follows a different logic. Rather than partitioning people of different ethnic, national or political backgrounds, they have been built along economic lines. The purpose of these barriers is therefore twofold. On the one hand, they contain people, so that those who are destitute cannot get to the big houses. On the other hand, the barriers hide the slums from those who live around it, making poverty less visible.

Image courtesy of Benjamin Thompson © 2007, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Benjamin Thompson © 2007, some rights reserved.

These peculiarities raise the questions of why this concept disseminated throughout the countries of Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, and how it affects the lives of those who are trapped behind the walls.


A heritage of colonialism

As is the case with many persisting problems in Latin America, the root causes of the spatial inequality date back to colonial times. The colonial rulers, as well as other wealthy and powerful citizens, predominantly lived in the centre of the colonial cities, where they would showcase their wealth and strength through richly ornamented houses and a progressive provision of public services. In turn, those who lived outside these areas had only very limited access to basic services like sewage systems or potable water. This hierarchical order, with the rich occupying the centre of the cities, the middle class surrounding them and the working-class occupying the peripheries, was maintained until the second half of the twentieth century. At this time, many Latin American metropolises, such as Lima, Mexico City or Quito, experienced dramatic population growth. The rate of internal migration was particularly high during la década perdida (the lost decade), which describes the severe economic crisis in many countries of the region during the 1980s coupled with the exodus of the rural population to the cities in the quest for a better life. In short order, the centres of many big cities were characterised by social turmoil, pollution, and misery.

With these changes, the traditional configuration of cities across Latin America turned upside down. Prosperous social classes began to move away from the centres in an attempt to escape the increasing sense of disorder. The city’s outskirts were particularly attractive for them, as cheaper premises allowed for the construction of new suburban residential areas. However, this also meant that the rich now had to share their living areas with a social group that traditionally occupied these geographical spaces: the poor and penniless. As the affluent residents did not want to mingle with lower social classes, walls were constructed to demarcate the borders along economic cleavages.

Caught in the poverty trap

Oxfam estimates that residents of poor areas in Lima pay ten times as much for water as those living on the ‘right’ side of the wall. This example of Kafkaesque-like absurdity demonstrates that the walls are not only a mere visualisation of economic differences, but also a symbol of control and power over the lives of others.

Most importantly however, they construct and exacerbate poverty. As Jeffrey Sachs explains in his influential book The End of Poverty, the lack of investments in human capital (health, education) and infrastructure (power, sewage systems, potable water) lead to a self-reinforcing mechanism known as the ‘poverty trap’, which causes misery and social inequality to persist. The walls in Latin America are a case in point for this phenomenon, as public expenditures are almost non-existent in the slums.

Interestingly, the barriers also have negative spillover effects for the ones who decided to build them. The lack of educational and economic opportunities contributed to the rise of small-scale and organised crime – ‘Más vale vivir 5 años como rey que 50 como buey’ (It’s better to live five years as a king than 50 years as an ox) has become the unofficial motto of many young persons in the cities’ slums. According to the Mexican NGO Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y Justicia Penal, 41 out of the 50 most dangerous cities worldwide are located in Latin America. Individuals of the upper social class became the predominant target for abduction, extortion, and mugging. Therefore, the walls do not even fulfil their purpose as a protective measure for the economic status quo of the wealthy, but rather add fuel to the fire of social divide.

The veil of ignorance

Although gated communities and the coexistence of poverty and prosperity are common occurrences in many parts of the world, they have become a defining feature of Latin American cities in the twenty first century. Already today, Latin America is the region with the highest income inequality of our planet and the social rift continues to increase through the polarisation of cities in areas of the poor and the rich.

What happens if this problem continues to be ignored? As we cannot predict the future, maybe an allegory from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death might help to answer this question. In his famous short story, Prince Prospero and numerous other aristocrats take refuge in a walled castle to escape the Red Death, a terrible disease with harrowing symptoms that has swept over the land. As they intend to await the end of the plague in luxury and opulence behind the walls of their secure refuge, a mysterious figure disguised as a Red Death victim enters and makes his way through each of the rooms. Prospero and his guests die after confronting this stranger, showing that no matter how thick the walls of the fortress, how luxurious the clothing, or how rich the food, no one, not even a prince, can escape the problems of the real world.

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